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August 16th 2015
Hello. I have about 700 films on DVD these days, and several of those are romantic comedies. I thought I'd get that out of the way at the start. Romantic comedies are, I know, looked down upon by a lot of people, and in fairness there are plenty out there that are lazy and formulaic (although I'd argue that that's also true of films from any other genre), but in principle I am in favour of the romantic comedy. Romance and comedy are, to my mind, two of the greatest things that God has given us, so whack 'em together and what do you have to complain about?
By this point you might be thinking that I'm not very manly. But I eat hot curries and own three screwdrivers - four, if you count the one on my pen knife - so I think my manliness cannot seriously be in question. Right? Come on, I even have a beard. Kinda.
Anyhow, I have put together a list of my ten favourite rom-coms, which is the point of today's post. One of the difficulties in doing this is that it's not always easy to establish whether or not a film is a romantic comedy: I have chosen films where romance and comedy are central, but only narrowly rejected some where there's not quite enough comedy (e.g. The Spectacular Now) or romance (e.g. Shaun of the Dead). On another day I might have categorised slightly differently.
Anyway, enough preamble. Here is the list of my ten favourite rom-coms (in alphabetical order) along with my musing on them. Prepare yourself for some good-time reading.

About Last Night...

About Last Night...
The Rom: Demi Moore and Rob Lowe are the best-looking couple in movie history. That's just a fact. They get together and break up over the course of a year in this adaptation of David Mamet's 'Sexual Perversity in Chicago', and are truly compelling together both in the early scenes of their flourishing relationship and in the wearied breakdown later on.
The Com: While Rob Lowe would later become a hilarious television actor, he plays it straight here and the comedic heavy lifting is left to Jim Belushi and (in a far cry from her family-friendly roles in Miracle on 34th Street and Big) Elizabeth Perkins as the leading couple's best friends. The adaptation wasn't written by Mamet, but it maintains a lot of the humour from the stage play, although it does try a bit too hard to shock in the opening scene.
And so on: This is an incredibly eighties film, from its dreamy leads to its soundtrack, but has stood the test of time. There is rather more nudity and swearing than I generally appreciate in a film, but at its heart it's a genuinely romantic movie. Last year's loose remake managed to capture much of the film's spirit, in a different way, and is also worth a watch.

Doc Hollywood

Doc Hollywood
The Rom: Michael J. Fox plays a big-time surgeon who finds himself unrealistically stuck in small-town America, where his heart is slowly won over the bucolic way of life and a non-nonsense single mother played by Julie Warner. Fox is as charming as ever; Warner is a perfectly adequate foil.
The Com: As well as being Fox's best comedy performance outside of a Delorean, the film has a strong roster of amusing (albeit stock) characters including a sassy nurse, a cantankerous doctor, and a go-getting insurance salesman - the last being played by a young Woody Harrelson. Oh, and there's a pig on a lead.
And so on: The film is perhaps best known for featuring Chesney Hawkes' classic 'The One and Only' on the soundtrack. Also, the plot was stolen more or less completely for the film 'Cars'. Which I haven't seen. Not out of protest, or anything. I just haven't seen it.

Garden State

Garden State
The Rom: Semi-successful actor Zach Braff - I mean, played by Zach Braff - returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, where he meets and falls in love with Natalie Portman's Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Some of the plot points are odd - buying stolen jewellery from a couple who live in a caravan above an abyss; attending a hamster funeral - but at its core it is a beautiful love story, with a highly emotional final scene.
The Com: As mentioned, Braff - who also wrote and directed - sometimes strays too far into the absurd in search of humour, but admirably underplays his own role rather than repeating his Scrubs performances. Similarly, Portman finds the humour in her character without losing any of the heart. There's also a brief appearance from a pre-Big Bang Theory Jim Parsons.
And so on: This has deservedly become a cult classic, and although it shows the marks of a young film-maker - various characters and scenes could have been toned down a lot - it was a highly promising beginning for Braff as a film-maker (albeit one he is yet to live up to). The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful, too, ranging from Nick Drake to Simon & Garfunkel to Coldplay.

Her

Her
The Rom: Joaquin Phoenix plays an ordinary, rather lonely, chap who falls in love with his operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. 'She' reciprocates. What could have been a broad comedy or a mocking portrait of desperation is in fact a surprisingly moving love story.
The Com: The most successful comedy in the film is the gentle satire deriving naturally from the developing relationship between man and machine, and from the reaction those around them. The least successful is the broadest, such as the foul-mouthed computer character voiced by director Spike Jonze, which provides cheap laughs but little more.
And so on: I have rhapsodised about this film before so I won't repeat myself too much here, but this was a truly fantastic film that was criminally overlooked at last year's Oscars. If you haven't seen it yet, then please do.

Just Like Heaven

Just Like Heaven
The Rom: Reese Witherspoon plays a doctor who doesn't have time for a social life. Mark Ruffalo plays a landscape architect who is too depressed to have a social life. They're set up on a blind date, but Witherspoon's character is in a car crash en route; in a ghost-like form she then meets Ruffalo's character (who has rented her apartment) and, in classic rom-com style, initial animosity gradually turns to affection. Both leads are fine actors, and they are great together here in lighter material than Ruffalo, in particular, often takes on.
The Com: As well as being a great on-screen couple, both Ruffalo and Witherspoon have fine comedic chops and elevate the inherent comedy of the high-concept premise. They're joined by Jon Heder, of Napoleon Dynamite fame, playing a mysterious character not a million miles away from his Dynamite performance. According to Wikipedia, this helped to dispel rumours that he was dead.
And so on: The film was overshadowed by 'Walk the Line', an excellent film released simultaneously and for which Witherspoon deservedly won an Oscar. While this film isn't as strong, it is impossible to fault it as a romantic comedy, and it is significantly better than the book on which it was based, 'If Only It Were True' (fun fact: the only novel I've ever read in translation).

Notting Hill

Notting Hill
The Rom: Hugh Grant's diffident Englishman and Julia Roberts' movie-star American form an unlikely off-and-on relationship in Richard Curtis's middle-class England. In the climax (spoiler alert), Grant's character decides that he was stupid to reject Roberts' character, so races across London in order to tell her, in front of the world's entertainment press, that he wants to give it a try.
The Com: As well as Grant's usual (at that time) understated performance, there's a cast of talented British supporting actors including Emma Chambers (The Vicar of Dibley), Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Tim McInnerny (Blackadder), Dylan Moran (Black Books) and others, who weren't in popular TV shows. Rhys Ifans, in particular, is yet to shake off his role as Spike.
And so on: It wouldn't be a rom-com list without including a Richard Curtis film, and while they're often derided as taking place in an imaginary world, I've never found his world any less realistic than, say, the gang-land of Martin Scorcese. Anyhow, I actually prefer Curtis's 'About Time', but that ceases being a romantic comedy about halfway through so I've picked this film instead, a charming rom-com through-and-through.

Roman Holiday

Roman Holiday
The Rom: In her first major role, Audrey Hepburn won the world's heart as the princess of an unspecified European country, going incognito in Rome. Gregory Peck plays a hard-bitten journalist who finds himself spending the day with the princess, initially not recognising her but then secretly planning to write up the story of their time together.
The Com: Much of the humour is derived from dramatic irony, initially with Hepburn's character pretending not be a princess, then Peck's character pretending that he doesn't know her true identity. There's also a bit of classic slapstick, such as Hepburn's drunk-acting (actualled sedated-acting) and Peck getting involved in a punch-up.
And so on: Although Peck was supposed to have sole top billing, he realised during filming that Hepburn was probably going to win an Oscar, so he suggested that she take joint billing. She did; she won the Oscar; and the rest, as they say, is history. In fact, both stars were on top form in this film: I don't think I've ever seen Hepburn better, or Peck better outside 'To Kill a Mockingbird', although he does appear to owe a debt to Cary Grant in his performance.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility
The Rom: Another entry for Hugh Grant, this time playing Edward Ferrars to Emma Thompson's Elinor Dashwood in an adaptation (written by Thompson) of Jane Austen's classic. Elinor is sensible; Edward is charming but less roguishly so than some - I'm looking at you, Willoughby - and Elinor thinks all hope of love is lost when Mr Ferrars marries Miss Steele. I won't spoil the story for you, but it includes some phenomenal acting (and writing) from Thompson.
The Com: Some of the supporting characters are a little broad, particularly Sir John and Lady Middleton, but absolutely get away with it somehow. Much of the humour is fairly closely taken from the page, but there's also an amusing scene based around Edward Ferrars pretending not to understand geography, which emanates from Thompson's pen rather than Austen's.
And so on: This is a wonderful ensemble British cast - Hugh Laurie, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Imelda Staunton - and, if Thompson is really a bit too old to play Elinor, she pulls it off. Even the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon, which in the book is frankly ridiculous, just about works here. While the adaptation is not as good as BBC's Pride & Prejudice, it is an unfair comparison given their respective run-times. It still always comes as a surprise to remember that this film was directed by Ang Lee, though.

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love
The Rom: The title gives this one away: Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is in love with Lady Viola (Gywneth Paltrow), although at times he doesn't realise that his friend "Thomas Kent" is Viola in a fake beard. In scenes reminiscent of the play Romeo and Juliet, which Will is simultaneously writing, the two meet in secret and are ultimately doomed... (spoilers for both this movie and that play). The film is the high point of the stars' respective careers, dating from before a time when everyone seemed to hate Paltrow, and winning her an Oscar.
The Com: Again, there is a fine ensemble of British actors and they provide many of the laughs, particularly Geoffery Rush (OK, he's Australian, but I'm claiming him for some reason). Fiennes in particular shows great comedic ability too, and there is much amusement for those of us who think we have Shakespearean knowledge, as several plot points and lines from his plays are flung around the script. There are also some enjoyably corny jokes, such as Will spending the opening credits practising his autograph.
And so on: The film won masses of awards, including seven Oscars, and while that seemed to displease a lot of people (who preferred Saving Private Ryan, a vastly inferior film in my view) I think they were mostly well-deserved. It's hard to make the case for Judi Dench, though, who is good but barely in it.

Three to Tango

Three to Tango
The Rom: Matthew Perry, at the peak of his Friends powers, pairs up with Neve Campbell, at the peak of her looking-absolutely-stunning powers. He's an architect of Hungarian descent; she's a glass-blower who's having an affair with the guy who's about to give him an architectural contract but suspects her of cheating on him... she thinks he's gay, they move in together. Look, it's complicated.
The Com: As I say, Perry made the film during a break from Friends and he brings much of his Chandler hilarity to the role. There's also an amusing scene concerning tuna melt. I suspect that, had I not seen this film at fairly impressionable age when I'd not yet seen many films, I would not have the same affection for it that I do. It's easily Perry's best movie, though.
And so on: Oliver Platt, Bob Balaban and John C. McGinley are all strong members of the supporting cast. The soundtrack is really good. I can repeat the emotional we're-breaking-up-even-though-we're-not-actually-together scene more or less off by heart. Man, I love that film.

August 23rd 2015
I'm not very good at turning people away when they come to my front door. I think I have this in common with most British people, and, who knows, probably some of those foreign people, too. It just seems rude to slam the door in someone's face, even when there isn't a chance that I want what they're offering; this is why I pretend that I'm not in on October 31st every year, and why I spent some weeks last year ignoring the doorbell on Saturday mornings, reluctant to continue conversation with some JWs who seemed delighted that I knew my Bible, but didn't seem to realise that a side effect of this was that I was unlikely to be converted to their cause.
So it is that I approach my front door with suspicion every time I hear the doorbell ring, knowing that I won't have the ability to close it and walk away, unless - as was once the case - it was a bloke clearly trying to scam me by telling me that my roof needed fixing. By strange coincidence, once I'd rejected his overtures, it turned out that the house next door also needed its roof fixed. So did the house next to that. We must live in a cul-de-sac of cowboy tilers, I guess.
Where was I? Oh yes, approaching my door. On Friday evening I had a visitor who both rang and knocked, and with some trepidation I opened the door to find a pleasant-looking chap who immediately focused my attention on his badge, no doubt to reassure me that he was a legitimate caller and wasn't about to rob me. It wasn't, in fairness, the most official-looking badge I've ever seen - he'd hand-written his name on it, for starters - but there was a bit of green on it that was probably a company's logo, so I did feel fairly reassured. After all, how many burglars would write their own name on a badge? For one thing, it would make tracking down the burglar quite a bit easier, unless, I suppose, they wrote a fake name. But who would be smart enough to do that? Well, anyone would, I guess. But the chap had a lanyard and everything, and I imagine it would cut too deeply into the profit margins of burgling operations if they had to kit out all their burglars with lanyards, biros and colour printing.
Anyways, I was, as I say, reassured. Given that he wasn't going to steal from me, though, what was he going to do? I assumed that he was going to try to sell something to me, or - worse - give me something for free. It's the free stuff that's the worst, because there's always a catch, and it's really hard to turn down something that's free unless you want to look like an illogical buffoon. And I didn't want to look like an illogical buffoon.
It turned out, though, that he wasn't going to give me anything. At least, not yet. He was from some company that provides food ingredients, and all he wanted to do was ask me to complete a survey - but, if I did so, he might give me a small prize. "Like your neighbour over there", he added, pointing vaguely at the road, perhaps having read somewhere that people are more likely to take part in a survey if they know that other people have done so as well. Well, I'm not saying it didn't work, because I let him continue his questions.
First up: do I do the shopping and cooking in the house? This was an easy one to start with, as I'm the only person in the house. It's a stretch to call what I do 'cooking', I guess, but inasmuch as anyone cooks things at the homestead, I'm the one who cooks 'em. "Yes" I said, confident that I was aceing this so far. "And how many do you cook for?" Again, this was a gimme: one person. Me. But wait. Should I have told him that I live alone? I didn't know the chap - he might not even be called Mohammed, contrary to what it said round his neck - and here I was basically telling him that the house was empty during standard working hours (I'm confident that I give off the vibe of a man with standard working hours). What if he actually were part of a burglary gang, playing the long game, and would be back at the house at 9am on Monday ready to steal my TV, laptop & substandard cooking ingredients? Should I tell him that, when I said "one", I wasn't counting the pack of fighting dogs that I keep hungry in the spare room; the one with the faulty latch?
But it was too late, he was already onto his next question: which of the array of meals shown on his clipboard, in picture form, would I prefer? I had a quick look at the ten or so pictures, and saw that there was no curry. Disappointing. So I selected one at random, then spotted that it was vegetarian so chose again, picking something with chicken in it. I like chicken. He chuckled knowingly at my selection, although he didn't explain why, and quickly moved to the next question: if the prices were the same, would I shop at a supermarket or an independent purveyor? Ah, I thought, here's where I can subtly imply that he might be barking up the wrong tree with me: I would prefer a supermarket, and I told him so. I didn't explain that it was because it minimises human interaction, and I'm a mathematician, but it didn't matter because he'd already taken it in his stride, somehow managing to imply with another chuckle - slightly longer, this time - that his was a company that was perfectly suited to people who live alone and shop at supermarkets; particularly those people with a certain partiality for chicken. I was going to have to try harder to disillusion him, I realised.
The next set of questions required to me to place, on scale from one to five, how important various things were for me in cooking: low cost (5); nutrition (4); variety (3) and a couple of others I've forgotten. To be honest, I was trying to let him down gently, as in fact there are few people who care less than me about the variety of food they eat: my good friend Ant once suggested that I only ever eat pizza and curry, and while that's not quite true - I had an egg sandwich yesterday - it does sound awesome and is not as far from the truth as it should be. But, then, curry is awesome. There are only two reasons why I don't eat curry every day: (i) I have a feeling that it's the kind of thing my mother would disapprove of; and (ii) pizza is also awesome. Anyways, back to the survey and my friend "Mohammed" was telling me the good news that the various things I'd just scored on the one-to-five scale were in fact the very things that his company was especially known for. I'm not sure what he'd have said if I scored them all at one out of five - in fact, I was starting to suspect that none of my answers had any bearing on his script at all - but we were just about to get to the nub of the issue: would I be interested in receiving packaged, nutritious, easy-to-cook ingredients three times a week?
No, I wouldn't. So I said so.
Mohammed was, I have to say, disappointed. I wondered if he'd had the same response from my vague neighbour. Anyway, he wasn't giving up without a fight: what if buying this food would mean that I'd only actually have to cook three times a week? Would that make a difference?
No, it wouldn't. Sorry. Having spent much of the conversation worried that I was going to end up buying ingredients just to get out of an awkward situation, I was starting to have more confidence in myself. I didn't want his nutritious, easy-to-cook, chicken-based ingredients and I wasn't afraid to say so. I think Mohammed had sensed my determination by this point, but he gave it one last try: why wasn't I interested in his offer?
"Look," I said, "I don't really care what I eat. Tonight I had chilli con carne out of a tin."
"Oh," said Mohammed, "Wow."
And he left.

what was I listening to?
Speak Now - Taylor Swift
what was I reading?
Batman: The Killing Joke - Alan Moore & Brian Bolland
what was I watching?
Miller's Crossing
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